Pulse racing, hammering thud in my head. Damn it. DAMN IT.

The sweet clinical voice of the pharmcore doctor echoed in my memory.

“DVote is the best of Synthetic Synaptic Tech coming out of the New Mandarin Collective. This however, comes at a price. You MUST have your follow up visits, a personal scan and evaluation session with me every week for solid month. After we imprint you, it takes time for the mind to accept what its being told is the truth.”

I was a few blocks away from the clinic, but it might as well have been miles. Sitting down on a dirty square of sidewalk, I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples, remembering the doc’s speech.

“If you miss an appointment, then the association starts to break down. There’s a good risk of physiological damage if you don’t consult us immediately. Its all in the waiver you signed. Once imprinted, you have to see us. And if you’re thinking about going to our competitor ‘TruLove’ as a guinea pig to get a discount, I’d strongly suggest against it.”

DVote and TruLove had a megacorp rivalry that was beyond most sovereign skirmishes – the few that existed, that is. It all hinged on several provisional patents that were granted by an immature AI, now being challenged in the various baroque legal venues where global corporations fought it out over trillions in revenue.

I had gotten imprinted for Saki. I thought it would impress her, that I was willing to suffer through the procedure to be completely in love with her. In an age of boundless distractions, both virtual and physical, it was the closest thing to getting married – that is, before you merged your identity tokens to produce your legal co-mingled signature.

That was six days ago.

It was yesterday when I told her the news, sitting at her breakfast table while the delivery drones flew by the balcony in a blur, rivers of air buzzing in their wake. She sat opposite me, putting her hands on the table like she was afraid it would fly away.

“But Macx, I can’t do this with you… I’ve been to TruLove.”

She had gotten imprinted on someone else – a co-worker in her office. That didn’t stop the antigens from flowing out of her pores, rising on the brownian motion of the air and being absorbed into my skin. It didn’t prevent the similar yet aggressively programmed machines in my head from activating its self-destruct mode. I don’t even remember leaving, just the tears falling from her face, pattering on the linen placemat in front of her. An angel weeping for the damned.

Slowly, I rose up. I had to keep moving. Maybe I could make it to the clinic, convince the doc that I wasn’t trying to do an end-run around their product security, offering up my saturated synapses as study material for their fiercest rival. I laughed out loud at the stupidity of it all.

Shooting pain from my feet to the top of my skull brought me to a jarring halt. It was close, so close. I could make it. I just had to keep from thinking of —

I fell over backward, staring up at the night sky, stars twinkling.

“If you actually attempt to visit TruLove, or have any of their supposed remedies applied to your system, our contravention systems kick in. This will involve gradual mental loss of your imprinted memory, continued discomfort, and in some extreme cases, partial nervous system shutdown. We don’t recommend contact with anyone inoculated with TruLove products before you’ve been stabilized. Do you understand?”

I understood. Perfectly well.

I stared at the sky and let the stars whisper to me, until their voices grew too weak for me to hear.